This is a bit of an unbelievable coincidence but it is true: a few days before I discovered that 50 Shades of Grey had magically appeared in one of Portland's second run theaters I randomly started thinking about the relationship between comedy and pornography. Specifically, I was thinking about how the Supreme Court's famous definition of pornography - “I know it when I see it” - applies to humor just as well as it applies to smut. I work in an office with a lot of people who are (quite frankly) rather dull, and I regularly fail to laugh at their jokes because I generally can't figure out when they were trying to be funny. Similarly, I try not to talk to them about the comedies that I enjoy because I know that most of the jokes that tickle me pink would just seem to be random or crude to them. I had always kept comedy and eroticism separate in my mind because there's nothing less sexy than being laughed at, but it occurred to me that just this week that they have a lot in common, in that they are both powerful responses you can neither deny in yourself or explain to someone else.
The reason why that is an unbelievable coincidence is because I had kind of forgotten about 50 Shades of Grey, which came out all the way back on Valentines Day, and if there's a movie that does a better job of blurring the line between pornography and comedy I've never seen it. For the uninitiated: 50 Shades of Grey is about the romance between a college aged virgin named Anastasia Steele and a tortured billionaire named Christian Grey. The main thrust* of the plot is that they are uncontrollably attracted to each other but he isn't sure that he can commit to her because he has commitment issue and she is afraid to commit to him because he's into a bunch of S&M stuff that intimidates her. In theory, this is supposed to be a cat-and-mouse game between an older man who knows what he wants and a naive young woman who has yet to open herself up to pleasure, but in practice it's laughably insane melodrama.
Let's start with Ms. Steele. Her naivete is beyond belief, particularly for a woman who is days away from obtaining a bachelor's degree in the 21st century. There's a scene where Grey says that he wants to have sex with her on a conference room table and her response boils down to “On a table? Is that even possible? Do people really do that?” I can understand how a vanilla young woman would be clueless about the ins and outs of the bondage world, but I can't fathom a grown woman who is so sheltered that she is incapable of imagining that anyone would ever have sex anywhere but a bed. I hate to break it to you, Ana, but a table is a surface and if it's a surface you can probably fuck on it. In fact, if it's solid, relatively slow moving and not too sharp I can almost guarantee you that someone has fucked on it. Hell, if it's got two of those three qualities it's probably hosted a bone-town throwdown before – I mean, people have definitely gone to town on pool floats in the past, and those aren't particularly well known for being either solid or stationary.
That scene is just one drop in the inexplicable bucket. A lot of Ana's sexual tics are meant to be appealing but they just come across as bizarre. When she first meets Christian Grey he gives her a pencil with his name on it, which is already pretty ridiculous – what kind of billionaire business man still uses pencils? (This is a bit of a tangent, but I know someone who works at an enormous international bank and he told me that one of his coworkers actually got fired for having a client sign an important contract in pencil. His bosses were afraid that the signature would accidentally get erased thus invalidating the entire deal, and they also felt that anyone who was dumb enough to turn in a legal document with an erasable signature on the bottom line didn't deserve to work at a large multinational corporation.) Anyway, Ana has a bad habit of tapping her monographed pencil against her teeth while the Grey insignia is pointing towards the camera, as if to say "SOON I WILL BE USING THIS VERY MOUTH TO PLEASURE THIS GREY FELLOW" - which is definitely a bit on the nose as character development goes. Even worse: she can't stop licking her lips every time she sees him. Her mouth is basically the Chekhov's gun of 50 Shades of Grey, as they take great pains to establish early on that she has an oral thing in a hamfisted attempt to foreshadow that stuff is definitely going to be coming in and out of it later.
Let's move onto Christian Grey. Now I don't want to get too much into his ridiculous backstory (...apparently he's super into S&M because his mom was a crack addict who didn't love him, which is an explanation we didn't need and which doesn't explain anything.) I don't even want to get into his dating habits too much (...although I will say that I laughed out loud when he gave Ana a list of all of the things that he had done for her that he had never done with any of his other submissive girlfriends, and that list included “flying them in a helicopter” and “sleeping in their bed overnight". Both of those are equally weird firsts but in completely different ways.)
Instead I want to spend my paragraph on Christian Grey like this: you know how Batman is a obscenely wealthy industrialist who never gets any work done because he's always channeling his inner frustration into crimefighting? Well, switch “bondage sex” with crime fighting and you have Christian Grey. This handsome athletic billionaire is constantly brooding, he acts like his life is one big secret, he has unresolved parental issues, and he even has Bruce Wayne's iconic chin... but unfortunately he never releases his dark energies in a way that I could get behind. Every time we got a close up of Grey sulking by himself in an expensive but empty house I kept thinking "oh my god, is he about to hide those chiseled abs behind a rubber suit? Is he about to take his anger out... on crime?" Alas, the only ass-whipping Christian Grey ever does is the literal kind that actually involves asses and whips, which is the kind I mostly don't care about.
(Incidentally: I can kind of buy Batman's obscene wealth because he supposedly inherited it from his parents, but I was completely mystified as to where Grey's money came from. We know that he was born into poverty, and we know that some point he amassed enough wealth to own an entire corporate highrise with his name on the door in downtown Seattle, which is impressive, because Seattle is expensive and he's only in his early thirties... And yet he seems to have no work ethic at all, as he is constantly making time to pursue a mousy and noncomittal twenty something he met once while she was interviewing him for a college newspaper. How does he get any work done when he's constantly cancelling his professional commitments to flirt with her? Does the board of directors know that the reason why their CEO is AWOL is because he flew across the country to stalk a barely legal young woman who was trying to avoid his bullshit by hiding at her mom's house for the weekend? That seems like the sort of thing they would need to know. But I digress.)
I don't want to condescend to all of the people who found this movie to be highly erotic. I can definitely see why 50 Shades of Grey would be appealing to the right person - it has multiple explicit sex scenes and it's undeniable that watching other people get naughty can be highly stimulating. But that wasn't my experience with this movie at all. In fact, not only did their trysts fail to excite me, they actually gave me laughing fits. In particular, the scene where Grey used his lash on Ana for the first time nearly had me in hysterics. I couldn't exactly explain to you why – but there was something about the way the lash moved in slow motion, and how serious the actor playing Christian Grey was trying to look even as the editing was betraying him, and how the slowed down sound of the straps of leather tapping her flesh sounded soft instead of sensual, that just rendered the whole thing silly to me. I guess that's the other way that humor and smut are similar: if you're into it you're into it, but if you aren't then it's the stupidest thing in the world